Inspired by the memoir of the same name — penned by the elusive ‘She and He’ — The Mistress Contract has been adapted for the stage by Abi Morgan and opens at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre. The events that take place on stage are based on hundreds of hours of tape recordings from a (supposedly) real couple who, after meeting at college before reuniting years later, drew up an official relationship contract defining terms of engagement. Of particular importance are the rules of sexual permission and monetary reward. The relationship apparently began in 1981 and continued for decades.
She and He are played here by Lorraine McIntosh and Cal MacAninch – both recognisable figures from various film, TV and theatre appearances as well as the music world (McIntosh is the Deacon Blue vocalist). The intimate dynamic between the two is felt immediately. The dialogue is honest and explicit and any potential veneer between audience and character is vanquished in the play’s opening moments. Conversations focused on sex are believable, vulnerable and sometimes funny, but never gratuitous or salacious. Some of the play’s foremost and early questions are essentially feminist: Is prostitution ever feminist? Is the term ‘prostitution’ even appropriate here? She sells her body via a contract and receives payment for this. But it is of her command. The contract is her own suggestion and she offers it forward. However, we also find ourselves asking whether it’s really borne of free will? She admits she is doing this because she is “penniless” and “miserable” — in part because of her partner’s non-committal approach to the relationship as it stands. There are no obvious answers here.
The play progresses, charting the passage of years and the changing aspects of the unusual relationship. It probes and provokes thought on various topics: sexual politics, monogamy, satisfaction, and the differences between men and women — or at least very traditionally binary, heterosexual, cisgender men and women. One drawback here, though, is the eventual feeling of drudgery. The play is incessantly cerebral and dense with layered dialogue, demanding unrelenting focus from the audience. And over its hour and forty minute run-time (without intermission), it does feel a little tiring. Another odd sticking point is the actors’ Scottish accents, despite the play’s definite American setting.
The eventual climax revolves around the opportunity for She and He’s conversation transcripts to be published, bookending the piece neatly with the returning idea of contract-signing. The audience may be slightly disengaged by this point, though, thanks to the insistent intensity which, ironically, loses potency at some point.
Essentially, the play works, but also works its audience. The lack of peaks and troughs in structure does demand a lot from us. However, The Mistress Contract is deftly performed and the script explores some fascinating and uncomfortable areas of relationships and sexuality. After its final scene, we may just re-evaluate accepted rules of romantic engagement as view She and He’s arrangement with a more open-minded appreciation.